Feds get new tool for online public feedback

GSA on Tuesday unveiled a tool designed to make it easy for each federal agency to solicit public ideas and for the public to comment on them.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read

The U.S. General Services Administration announced on Tuesday a new tool designed to help federal departments and agencies solicit ideas from the public as mandated by the Obama Administration's recent Open Government Directive.

The tool, which will be made available free of charge to any federal department or agency, will allow members of the public to submit ideas and vote or comment on others' ideas. The tools will go live on the Web site of each participating agency or department on February 6, and will be active for five weeks.

The hope, at least among participating departments and agencies, is that having a single tool that can be used across the federal government will make it easy for members of the public to engage with as many agencies as they wish, and to help government bureaucrats meet the requirements of the Open Government Directive, which is built around fostering transparency, participation and collaboration.

An early prototype of the new public engagement tool announced by the GSA on Tuesday. U.S. General Services Administration

Every federal agency must submit a report by April 7 as to how they plan to meet those requirements.

"I think it's fantastic," said Tracy Russo, the new media director for the U.S. Department of Justice. "We are very excited about the Open Government Directive here, and that means a lot of work. It's quite a harsh deadline in that directive...so having GSA do the heavy lifting on policy and legal requirements has been an incredible benefit to us."

The new tool, which was built by a company called Ideascale, is very cheap to work with and implement, said Bev Godwin, the GSA's director of new media and citizen engagement. All told, she added, it is expected to cost the GSA just $3,000 and will be free to each agency that wishes to use it.

Though the tool is not yet active, it is similar to one that is currently operational on the Federal Communications Commission's Web site and that is being used to solicit ideas and feedback about federal broadband policy.

"We think that the Ideascale platform is one of a variety of tools that offers a productive discussion and feedback (system)," said Russo, "because it allows the public to provide a wide variety of feedback and also engage with other people's ideas...It allows us as an agency to look at the ideas that are most popular as well as search by keyword."

Although the tool will display real-time results of the most popular publicly-submitted ideas on each agency's Web site, there are no guarantees that those ideas will ultimately be implemented. But the point, said Dave McClure, who heads up the GSA's Office of Citizen Services, is that the tool empowers the spirit of the Open Government Directive, by giving the public an easy way to submit ideas and become involved in the decision-making process.

And it's that spirit that has some open government watchdogs excited about the GSA's effort.

"I think this is great," said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Washington, D.C.-based Sunlight Foundation. "The GSA has been playing a role for awhile now as a quiet supporter of using the Internet for deliberation and public discussion...and this is another example of them taking that role seriously."

One important element of the project, Wonderlich suggested, was that the tool will be the same across all the agencies that implement it, an efficiency that he hoped will make it easy for everyone involved to use it. Indeed, the only functional difference from site to site will be the splash page for each agency.

All told, McClure said, 21 out of 24 "major" federal departments have signed on to use the tool, which is not mandatory under the Open Government Directive's guidelines.

No one yet knows how effective this tool will be in the end, but by ensuring that the public can participate easily and not have to learn a new system for each agency, it seems probable that, at the very least, there will be plenty of public engagement during the five-week experiment.

"It's the first time (that agencies) are implementing the directive itself," Wonderlich said. "So agencies and the public, too, have a strong incentive in seeing this succeed and not being too painful. So I'm glad the GSA stepped up and said, 'Here's a solution for your public dialogue.'"